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Smart Phones for Travel: HTC Desire HD vs iPhone 4

by Globetrooper Todd | 15 Responses
HTC Desire HD vs iPhone 4

For the past seven months, we’ve travelled without a mobile phone. And we generally haven’t needed one, especially with access to Skype. Our families and friends all use Skype, and even when they’re not online, it only costs us 2 cents per minute to call their land lines.

However, we have dearly missed the smart phone features of our previous phones, such as mapping, GPS, email-on-the-go, mobile twitter, etc. And now that we’re back in Canada, where smart phone prices are reasonable, we’ve decided to become phone-dependent again. The big question is, do we go for an Android-based phone, or Apple’s relatively new iPhone 4.

The Contenders

Since we’re mostly interested in the smart phone features (i.e. Internet connectivity, mapping, etc.) we’re limited to a handful of options from Apple, Blackberry, Palm, Nokia and manufacturers who use Google’s Android operating system. By virtue of available applications, reliability, ease of use, and online support, we’ve cut this list to Android-based devices and the iPhone 4.

A couple of days ago in Montreal, we had the chance to play with HTC’s new Desire HD. We were quite surprised. Firstly, because it handled quite similar to an iPhone (screen swapping, typing, etc.), and secondly, because it seemed very polished and well built. I spent some time online looking at other Android options from Samsung (and others), but consensus seems to be that HTC’s Desire (and Desire HD) are the current leaders in the Android category.

Having such a positive experience with the iPhone (previously) and the HTC Desire (recently), they’re the phones we shortlisted.

What Matters?

Many websites have compared these phones head-to-head already. But most of them pick a long list of categories, compare the two phones per category, choose a winner in each category, and then tally the score for the final winner. That seems crazy since no weight is given to each category. For example, screen size versus third party application availability, they’re both compared equally.

So taking a step back, we had to decide what mattered most to long-term travel:

  • Connectivity – at a minimum we need 3G and WiFi (802.11 a/b/g/n/etc). Bluetooth isn’t a big deal for us, nor is true quad band GSM since we use Skype for most calls.
  • Applications – we need social media apps and good mapping apps, but other than that, we would like to know there’s a lot more in development so we have access to the latest advancements in travel tech.
  • Battery Life – smart phones are notorious for poor battery life because they’re trying to do so much in such a small package. However, we need a phone that will last an entire day, even with relatively heavy use.
  • Size – we love to travel light, but more critical than weight is volume. We would prefer a phone that doesn’t have a large footprint, including accessories and cables. Also for ‘pocketability’, which I’m big on, smaller is generally better.
  • Camera – there are two trains of thought here: 1) the camera doesn’t matter because we’ll have a dedicated compact camera, or 2) the camera is very important because we can use the phone to replace our compact camera and just carry a larger DSLR.

HTC Desire & Desire HD

We’ve included both the Desire and Desire HD in this comparison because, although we can’t pick and choose the best features from each, they’re both relatively similar and we’re unsure which we’d prefer.

Here’s a list of thoughts on the HTC phones:

  • Great build quality, interface works well, and overall, it’s a serious contender to the iPhone 4
  • The Desire HD has a much larger screen, which many applaud, but for our purposes it’s a disadvantage
  • I had some trouble typing on the screen keyboard, but maybe I just need to get used to it
  • The Desire HD has class-leading camera specs, but the lens isn’t as fast as the iPhone
  • It seems that now there are just as many apps for Android as iOS

Apple iPhone 4

And, here are our thoughts on Apple’s iPhone 4:

  • The physical characteristics (build quality, size, etc.) seem better and more suited to our needs
  • The camera is a big improvement over the iPhone 3G. but it’s not really a digicam replacement
  • The battery life is said to be a little better than the HTC phones, but not materially better
  • In terms of connectivity, app availability and battery life, the HTC and Apple phones are neck-and-neck
  • We know the iPhone works, but we’ve heard there are still a handful of minor bugs with the HTC phones


It’s taken a couple of years for manufacturers to catch up with the iPhone and iOS. Even still, serious contenders are few and far between. I must say though, that the HTC Desire is one of few smart phones that’s as good, or better, than the new iPhone 4.

If I was undertaking a typical review, I’d probably suggest that the HTC Desire is overall a ‘better’ phone. The Android platform is open, the total package is cheaper, the phone has a great camera and big screen for games/multimedia, and it’s the latest and great version of Android-based phones.

But… for travel, and for us, the HTC phone isn’t good enough, and has a few too many disadvantages to be our phone of choice. The iPhone is a better size, anecdotal evidence suggests it’s more reliable, the camera’s better for what we’d use it for, the apps are established, but most of all, we know it will just work. And that’s really the issue here. To get me to forget that the iPhone will ‘just work’, the HTC phones would need to be much better, not just on par (or below).

So given the couple of small advantages of the iPhone, and the lack of impact of the HTC’s advantages, we’ll take the leap and get the new iPhone. Let’s just hope Internet connectivity in India is good enough for us to take full advantage of our new dependency.

Posted in Gear & Gadgets | January 13th, 2011

15 Responses to Smart Phones for Travel: HTC Desire HD vs iPhone 4

  1. I use and prefer the iPhone 4 as my day to day phone but for traveling outside the USA I purchased an unlocked Nexus S Android phone. The problem traveling overseas with the iphone is #1 it is locked to AT&T, #2 micro SIM. With an unlocked Android GSM phone I can go to a phone shop in any country and buy a phone/data SIM card, pop it in. With the iPhone I have to deal with roaming charges if I don’t hack it to unlock. I wish there were better options and I have found a web site that says they will provide an international SIM card for iPhone but it is over $23 a day.

    • Hi Lisa, great point re the Micro SIM. We just bought our iPhone, went to use it on Wifi, but it wouldn’t let us do anything without a SIM. So we opened up to put my Australian SIM in, and ‘uh oh’, wrong size. We’re not from the US, so we don’t have the AT&T issue. But otherwise, I’m a little worried about the Micro SIM being available around the world. At least with the bigger SIM you can carry an adapter.

  2. I just chose an HTC Desire (not HD) over an iphone 4 mainly for price and availability. So far so good, and the SIM is normal sized. It does everything i need as a travel blogger so I’d say it’s still a valid choice. That said had the iphone 4 actually been available (there’s a 3 month waiting list here in Italy) I might have bought it… and paid that extra 250 euros anyway. Thanks for the comparison, enjoy your trip and your phone!

  3. I actually just got an HTC Desire HD, and while it is a better phone (and I’m glad you can agree with that!) the battery life does suck for travelling…

    • Hey Sebastian, even though it took an Apple vs Google debate to bring you out of the woodwork, glad you’re here :) Also glad you finally upgraded from the tin can and string.

  4. I have a HTC desire myself and it’s sweet. One observation I have made catching the train into the city each day is that of the huge number of people playing with their smart phones – I have never seen anyone with Android that has a broken screen, whereas I constantly see broken iphone screens.

  5. That was a really interesting article on the phones and as you know I know nothing about either so its been a little bit of an education for me – thanks!

  6. You could cut down a normal sim, as shown in this video from Don McAllister (of ScreenCastsOnline fame)

  7. Thanks David, I found this out just after I bought a new SIM :)

    That said, we can’t travel with a knife (carry-on), and even though there’s a relatively easy solution, it’s still not idea for travel.

    We actually *almost* took the iPhone back to Apple the other day. Great phone; but we just weren’t using it. We travel fairly slowly, so out computers are usually within us and WiFi seems more plentiful than cheap 3G. But then we realised we’re only here for a couple of weeks in Canada and out typical destinations are much less developed. So while a smart phone seems virtually useless here, in India and other places, it will likely be very handy.

    Thanks again for the vid; I’ll put it up on our FB page.

    • I put my knife in my checked luggage – I am trying to get back to the heady days of being able to carry so little that it can all go in the cabin with me, but it is electronics – laptops and camera that weigh so much and leave no room for a pair of socks and a shirt.

      I think the iPod Touch (later generations) is a possibility because they have microphone ‘in’ and you can use Skype if you have Wifi – and they are a lot cheaper than risking a lovely iPhone.

      We used a dongle in India earlier this year (Tata Indicom Photo Plus) and it worked very well. Skype wasn’t that good on it though :(

      • Most people we talk to about baggage say, like you, it’s camera gear that stops them from going carry-on only. From the look of the cards on your blog, I’d say your camera is worth carrying :)

        iPhone Touch is a great alternative, but for me, I’m mostly interested in a smart phone for mapping, and the Touch lacks a GPS chip.

        Thanks for the tip on the Tata dongle; though Lauren will hate you for it because it gives me a reason to get rid of the iPhone. I’m a little ‘OCD’ about minimalism.

  8. The desire HD “Just Works” every bit as well as the iPhone 4, and most of the time works better.

  9. If you understand exactly what to do you could open you cellular phone in simply an issue
    of mins.

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